Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Weekly Meme

From Booking Through Thursday:

Quirky January 31, 2008
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:33 am

This week’s question is suggested by (blogless) JMutford:

Sometimes I find eccentric characters quirky and fun, other times I find them too unbelievable and annoying. What are some of the more outrageous characters you’ve read, and how do you feel about them?

I think eccentric characters are at their best when their eccentricity feels organic. I blogged about young Oscar Schell in
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a few weeks back. He's a great example of a totally believeable, totally eccentric character, as is Richard Russo's prankster English professor in Straight Man. You feel both like you've met someone like that before and like the character in question is a total one-of-a-kind original.

Eccentric characters annoy me when they're clearly just there for window dressing. In the book I'm reading right now, the main character's sister is clearly meant to be "the eccentric one," yet she's just like anyone you'd find in a small town, with her love of game shows, tarty clothing and men. She's full of folksy sayings and intimate knowlege of lawn mower prices (I'll explain in a few days). But she feels two-dimensional and cookie-cutter. I think it's because you never really get inside her head, or delve into her past to find out what made her the way she always (although I suspect that if we did, it'd be a combination of a fun-lovin' nature and a daddy who didn't pay her enough attention).

An "eccentric character" that's also noteworthy is Anna Madrigal, from the Tales of the City series. I hope I'm not spoiling the series for anyone by revealing that she was not born with that name, nor with that gender. It would've been easy for Maupin to make her into some sort of female caricature, like the drag queens you can see at clubs. But aside from her gardening hobbies (she grows weed and names her plants after famous women), she's pretty ordinary. She's not really eccentric, just a little quirky, like most people.

So those are some eccentric characters that stand out in my mind. What are your favorites?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dry tinder + gasoline + gunpowder + a match = ?

Just like some ingredients should guarantee a fire, you'd think some ingredients should guarantee a fire novel. Take a pregnant psychic, a sassy best friend, a charming but no-good drunken cheating abusive husband, the American bicentennial, and a dollop of small-town charm, and you should get something amazing, right?

Not in the case of The Saints and Sinners of Okay County by Dayna Dunbar. Aletta Honor is the pregnant psychic -- a real one, who's been able to see into people's lives of futures by touching them since childhood. (To dispense with the inevitable "If she was psychic, shouldn't she have known what an asshole she was marrying?" Dunbar explains that Aletta's gift never did work on her own flesh and blood.) And yeah, she's the one with the rotten husband. At the beginning of the book, he's left her, seven months pregnant, to whore around in order to determine "if that's the life he wants." He decides no, but doesn't quit drinking, and they get into a violent argument about it.

I know it all sounds pretty good so far, but it wasn't. Not to me. The tension in this novel was conspicuous in its absence. I had a hard time staying interested long enough to keep Aletta's kids straight from Joy's kids (Joy is the sassy best friend, BTW)and the other random kids that happened through the novel. The best parts were the flashbacks to Aletta's youth and the development of her gift, but that wasn't enough to keep me going. I abandoned it around page 75. Call it strike two for this most recent library haul.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Booking through Whatever Day This Is

This week's question, from Booking Through Thursday:

What’s your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody “knows” those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, “Huh? Never heard of it?”

I like this one a lot, because most of my childhood favorites resonate with no one else but me, then or now. Growing up, my favorite books were Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles (well-known but not terribly hot in my elementary school); L.M Montgomery's The Blue Castle, which may not have even been available in the United States; and several books by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.

In fourth grade, we had to pick one of our favorite authors and write a letter to him or her. I picked Zilpha Keatley Snyder. My teacher had never heard of her, but I was incredibly honored when she wrote back. I got a pre-printed letter with a photo of her and what we would now call a FAQ, but she wrote me a note addressing a question about how a dowsing rod worked, and even drew me a picture! Pretty cool.

From an adult perspective, I would say that the books I liked the best by her (The Egypt Game,The Changeling, and The Headless Cupid) were about older children who played elaborate games and dealt with the real world of complicated friendships, family issues, and just plain growing up through these games. As a kid, though, these books were no less than blueprints. The characters in all of those books, to me, had gotten close to that something else that I was sure was waiting for me, perhaps just through an old wardrobe or maybe even through a picture I drew myself on the sidewalk. I read The Changeling over and over, I tried to become a witch one summer like the people in The Headless Cupid so that I could commune with spirits, and I played The Egypt Game for a little while too.

But for some reason, no one else did. Her books didn't catch on, and I wonder if they're still read, or if she's still writing. I haven't read them in years, but they'll always have a special place in my heart.


As a public service to my non-Christian readers, I should warn you that Doesn't She Look Natural? by Angela Hunt is a Christian novel. If your library (like mine) placed the bar code over the God-related blurb on the back cover, you may have missed this.

I took a closer look at the publisher, the summary and the author bio when I'd hit about page 50 and noted the frequent mentions of God, prayer and Jesus making everything all right. I was willing to keep going for several reasons. I liked the book well enough by that point. I liked the concept of a woman inheriting a funeral home and doing her best Tim Gunn ("make it work!") in the face of overwhelming odds. The book had gotten good press, seemed to have some interesting characters and also seemed to be steering clear of the stuff I dislike about organized religion.

Until the middle of chapter 14. The main character, Jen, has intended to fix up this funeral home in Mt. Dora and sell it, but the home's elderly caretaker has convinced her to let him continue operating it while the work goes on. In this chapter, they've picked up their first "DB" as Grissom and Catherine would say (dead body to you non-CSI fans) and Jen gets the living shit scared out of her by the hairdresser. Unaware of her presence in the house, he goes up to the living quarters for a coffee. Now, Jen is justifiably frightened at finding a strange man in her kitchen. Yet, after the caretaker steps in, shoos the hairdresser back to his day job and settles everyone down, Jen's fear continues.

Why? What could be so horrible about this male hairdresser? Have you guessed it yet? She is afraid that Hairdresser Ryan might be one of those dreaded homosexuals -- and she has two easy converts in her impressionable young sons. And the caretaker gently explains to her that although Hairdresser Ryan would, in fact, love to get down and dirty with another man, he lives a pure and chaste life in a rooming house, alone, because that's clearly the way God wants it.

Yeah, seriously. If you don't believe me, check this book out yourself. I started to wonder about how the rest of the book would go. Jen's mother had been constantly chastising her about working too much and not spending enough time with her sons -- was she somehow going to give up working to be a stay-at-home single mom of some sort? Both she and her ex-husband had worked for Senators, and she'd railed about how unfair it was that she had to give up her job when they got divorced. But was that the "before" Jen? Was she going to see how much better it was in Mt. Dora, away from the sinful city and all its worldly distractions, where women are women and gay men are doomed to keep it in their pants for their entire lives?

I don't know. And maybe, by ripping out my bookmark, I'm being just as close-minded as those who believe Hairdresser Ryan made the proper life choice. But the book clearly wants you to sympathize with Jen, to root for her and to enjoy whatever transformation she'll undergo in the course of this book. And she's not so interesting that I could do that anyway, knowing how bigoted she is.

In a larger sense, I wonder why Christians need Christian fiction. They seem to be virtually the only religion that does that (at least in the United States). There are lots of novels about Judaism, but they're more cultural than religious. Why do no other religions try to convert people through fiction? I have some blogger friends who are atheists, and have seen frequent talk on their blogs about how there should be a more defined atheist movement in this country, to help offset the right-wing Christians who are running America into the ground. Maybe this is their golden opportunity: atheist fiction!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

I've been a fan of the Tales of the City books since I was a teenager. I'm not even sure how I got introduced to them, but I collected them all and got to the point where I barely even needed the actual book anymore to read it. I could just sit quietly and think about it.

The final book of the series ends on a down note. A marriage between two of the main characters ends abruptly when one turns her back on her adopted home city, her friends and her family to pursue a career in New York City. The landlady that linked them all, transgendered Anna Madrigal, has left love in Greece to return to San francisco. But saddest of all, kindhearted gay Everyman Michael Tolliver has HIV, and the burden of confronting his own mortality every day.

So the very title to Maupin's follow-up for the series, Michael Tolliver Lives, was heartening. However, I didn't expect to like it much. I read it in one day and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. The 55-year-old Michael Tolliver is much more bitchy than the one in the series, although the difference in point-of-view could account for that. The original series was written in a third-person omniscient; Michael Tolliver Lives is what I used to call an "I book" long before Macintosh ever developed the concept.

The success of Maupin's original series rested partly on him capturing a cultural moment. The series had its birth as a newspaper serial in San Francisco, and millions of readers could identify strongly with one of the characters, or knew someone just like them. When Michael Tolliver wrote his coming-out "Letter to Mama", some gays and lesbians sent it to their own parents with a note reading "me too." This book captures the way society has changed since 1989 (when the series ended). Sometimes it's effective, and other times it's not. Some of the references feel like too obvious an attempt to stay up-to-the-minute (the constant television references grated really fast) but the overall effect of highlighting a society that's been in a state of constant, radical change since the 70s worked.

Like most of the other fans of the series, I came to find out what happened to everyone. Some of the answers were very satisfying. It was good to see Anna Madrigal again, for example, and Michael himself has arrived at a good place. Brian, though, seems to have stagnated and his daughter Shawna's story was one of those grating references I talked about earlier. Mona's story was very sad, and Mary Ann's, like its original ending, was ambiguous. It was good to see everyone again, though.

The main issue I had was with the plot of this book. In the original series, despite the famed coming-out letter, Michael is essentially a child of the city. We know that he's from Orlando and was raised by ultra-conservative born-again orange growers. We know that they never do really accept him. And we even meet them once, when they come to visit Michael in San Francisco during the week of Halloween (there's a hilarious scene where they meet up with some of Michael's male acquaintances dressed as nuns on roller skates). This book is largely about his family drama. We learn that he has a brother -- who knew? -- and a niece and a great-nephew (who, they unsubtly suggest, may be gay as well, although he's only seven.) Michael's mother is in a born-again nursing home, and is dying of emphysema. Michael gets called in to assume power of attorney, and a family secret explodes, forcing Michael to confront his past.

Therein lies the dilemma. "The past", in this case, has to do with his father. We've met ol' Herb, in the second book, and he seems to an affable, if Archie Bunker-ish figure. Very conservative, lots of prejudices, but somehow despite all of this, a likeable, earnest guy who just wants his son to find a nice woman and be happy and succeed. Somehow, though, he's morphed into a drunken, abusive man who deserved to be abandoned by his wife. In the original series, we see several letters from Michael's mother to him. In between her anti-gay activism, they're all folksy and newsy. She talks about their dog, for crying out loud, and yet she never mentions Michael's brother, who lives right down the street? Maybe it's nitpicky. But it annoyed me.

In conclusion, I would say that this is a book for people who knew and liked the original series, or perhaps for people who've always meant to get into the series and never have. If you've never heard of it and have no interest in it, this book probably won't change your mind. If you hated it, the book won't change your mind. But fans will enjoy this one, despite the fact that it could've been better.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Booking through Today

OK, I'm trying this meme on the right day now. Anyone out there who knows how to make the button thing happen...seriously...even if it's very obvious, I won't be embarrassed, just post a comment! Anyway, the question before the panel this week is:

This week’s question is suggested by Puss Reboots:

How much do reviews (good and bad) affect your choice of reading? If you see a bad review of a book you wanted to read, do you still read it? If you see a good review of a book you’re sure you won’t like, do you change your mind and give the book a try?

Damn, damn and damn. Despite the fact that I worked a 12-hour day that had both criminals and cocoons in it (don't even ask!), I still felt like blogging tonight. But I don't have very much to say on this particular topic. I generally don't pay a whole lot of attention to book reviews, which may seem odd for a book blogger. On the other hand, often the slightest positive comment will make me want to read a book. I read The Devils Candy based on a three-sentence post in the Craigslist film forum. Wicked made my TBR list after a friend gave me a brief description and said it was good.

I received a gift of a subscription to the New Yorker for Christmas, and my first one just arrived. Maybe I'll have a different opinion on reviews after getting back into reading that. Usually, their book reviews are good, even if the books in question aren't anything I'm interested in. I'll let you know, as always.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Booking through...Wednesday

I found a link to this collection of memes over at The Sleepy Reader. I know that it won't technically be Thursday yet for twenty more minutes, and that this is last week's anyway, but I'm in the mood to blog tonight, and I liked this one, so here goes. I'm trying to figure out how to get her button onto my site. Anyone with advice, feel free to post it in comments.

May I Introduce…. January 10, 2008
Filed under: Wordpress — --Deb @ 1:05 am

Booking Through Thursday

How did you come across your favorite author(s)? Recommended by a friend? Stumbled across at a bookstore? A book given to you as a gift?
Was it love at first sight? Or did the love affair evolve over a long acquaintance?

I found this one especially pertinent to my life, as I just had a conversation with our office clerk about favorite authors. I usually bring a book to work with me to read during lunch, and she was asking me who my favorites were. I immediately flashed on my blog, with the list of favorites as long as my arm and had trouble even stammering out an answer!

But the majority of the ones on my sidebar don't have a smashing story related to them. Dr. Daphne Kutzer, one of my professors in undergrad, got me into Barbara Kingsolver by assigning Animal Dreams. Dr. Paul Johnston got me into Edgar Allan Poe during a survey course on American Lit.

My parents got me into Molly Ivins and Sarah Vowell: Ivins at a fairly young age and Vowell just a couple of years ago. James Herriot is a family tradition on my mother's side. My grandfather, who died when I was only 5, loved books, and his in particular. My mother bought all of them for him as gifts over the years, and the rule that both sides of my family have always observed is that you have the first right of refusal on anything you gave as a gift to someone who died. So, my mother had all of the James Herriot books in the house. I started reading them last year, and she let me borrow them all.

My sister got me into Phillip Pullman and Jasper Fforde. A former roommate and former friend (and yeah, the two were related, as always) got me into Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books, and I just picked up the habit again recently. I first became acquainted with Alice Munro, ZZ Packer and George Saunders through New Yorker short stories.

The rest were simple stumble-upons at the library or bookstore. They applealed to me for different reasons: Jack Keroauc made me feel grown-up and badass; Richard Russo had a book set in a town twenty miles away from where I was living (which was in the middle of nowhere, so I was amazed someone else could find it on a map, let alone sit down and write about it!). The book by Sandra Dallas was remaindered and was cheap at one of those fly-by-night "Book Sale" places that set up in abandonded Hollywood Videos. The cover of Tawni O'Dell's book screamed FUN!FUN!FUN! and turned out to be so well-written I didn't mind that it was really sad. A. Manette Ansay's book had a beautiful line on the cover about souls rising like dandelion seeds. But in nearly all cases, it was love at first site. I guess I tend to make up my mind quickly about books and authors.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Chick Lit Short Takes

Oh shit, I've just gone and pissed of Jennifer Weiner, who hates having her work called "chick lit." Since I like her, I don't really want to do that. I do feel, though, that her stuff is chick lit with heart...chick lit with a twist?....chick lit for real chicks? At any rate, it's definitely a cut above the stuff that Plum Sykes and her ilk churn out endlessly. Weiner's women are real. They're not all rich, they're not all skinny, and there's more ambivalence than pure "happily ever after."

Her best-known book is Good in Bed. Unfortunately, no library system on planet earth, or at least in upstate New York, carries it. I've often wondered why. The branch I grew up with had an odd penchant for acquiring lesser-known works by an author and passing up their best-sellers. You could get The Risk Pool by Richard Russo, but not Empire Falls or Nobody's Fool. They carried Martin Chuzzlewit, but not A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations. They carried books 2, 3, and 5 of the six-volume Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin. So I wasn't unfamiliar with this quirk the first time I encountered it, but it seems to be everywhere. The only reason I can think of is the title, but the fact that I just checked out a book called The Porno Girl kind of blows that theory away. At any rate, while I haven't read Good in Bed, I have read most of the rest of her books: In her Shoes, Little Earthquakes,Goodnight Nobody, and now, The Guy Not Taken.

Merin Wexler could learn something from this collection, for I believe this is what she was trying to do: women at pivotal moments. Weiner's collection feels more organic. It's not all "lookz at me an' my cool idea LOL!!1!!11!!!1" She starts with the characters, and the stories develop naturally from there, until they feel like people you've always known, telling you about simple stuff that happened to them. In an afterward to the book, Weiner explains that she'd been working on the stories in the collection since she was in college and writing a lot to get over her parents' divorce. She managed to keep the sincerity a young adult would naturally bring to her work, yet add enough polish so that no one feels like they're reading someone's diary.

The collection is fun and upbeat, but manages to bring in the ambiguity of real life. Couples don't always stay together. New mothers aren't always thrilled about their babies. Fathers walk away and never return, not even for the wedding. Even the happy couples aren't perfect. I read once that part of the reason for the high divorce rate is high expectations. Many people have this belief that romance and marriage will make their lives perfect. When they get married and still aren't happy all the time, they walk away. Weiner's books, then, are an appropriate amount of realism for this overhyped world: sometimes warm, sometimes fuzzy, occasionally alternating between warm and fuzzy, often neither warm or fuzzy, but once in a great while, just for a moment, both warm and fuzzy at once. The reader savors the sweetness of that rarity, rather than choking on the cloying, overpowering sweetness to be found in much of chick lit.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Murder, Cocaine, Bestiality, Barenaked Ladies, Free Beer and Chicken, and Porno Girls

When I was in college, a band named Free Beer and Chicken was a staple on our teeny-tiny bar circuit (there were three in town that consistently featured live music). It didn't exactly take me in the first time I saw their flier -- I wondered at first whether they meant free chicken wings, or what, then looked more closely at the flier. It did get my attention, though, and I'm sure that many of their crowd that night consisted of broke hippies craving wings (good thing they were a jam band).

Merin Wexler must've been a fan, for her book of short stories is titled The Porno Girl. This time, unfortunately, I was more gullible. I checked it out and took it home and even got most of the way through, more out of boredom than anything else. But it wasn't very good. It wasn't even very naughty. The problem with her stories is that they weren't developed enough. If you've ever written a short story, you'll know that sometimes the idea starts off something like: "I think I'll write a short story about a new mother who finds solace in the local XXX theater." When you sit down and write the thing, though, it's supposed to go further than that. Most of these stories don't. There's the one about the teenaged girl whose friend is trying to help a stranger save her marriage, while the girl's parents' own marriage is falling apart. There's the one about the pregnant newlywed who meets up with her ex-boyfriend again and manages to resist his dubious charms. There's the one about the yuppie who is having another baby so that her nanny will stay.

Only two really stuck with me: "The Closet" and "Helen of Alexandria." The first is about a young girl whose father is manic, and shows up in a sailor hat and rented Hummer, with a bullhorn and a redhead. Like the others, it doesn't yield too much more in execution than in concept, but it's paced well, the characters feel three-dimensional, and it offers something a little more riveting than a collapsing marriage or ambivalent mother. The second is about a teacher at a private girls' school, locked in a battle of wills with a Rate-Your-Students-worthy snowflake. This one had a little more complexity as it also featured a subplot about the teacher trying to find love, and the devastation the teacher felt as the two subplots collided in a way that I'm sure features prominently in the worst nightmares of those who teach.

The rest of them didn't really make me feel anything. I started this book on Friday night and already I can't remember most of them. If only the author had put as much effort into grabby stories as she did into a grabby title.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Marion True: Victim or Villain?

This question was sparked by a New Yorker profile of the recent legal troubles of Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum and current co-defendant on charges of conspiring to buy stolen properties in Italy and Greece. The profile was sympathetic to her, basically taking the view that naivete and following outmoded practices were her worst crimes. But it made me remember the book I'd purchased over the summer, The Medici Conspiracy by Peter Watson and Cecelia Todeschini. I wondered if I'd view her as sympathetically after reading that, so I dusted it off and dug in. About three-quarters of the way through, I re-read the New Yorker profile. I'm still not sure what to think.

To anyone who cares about history, The Medici Conspiracy will be absolutely shocking and not a little depressing. Before reading this book, I thought of tomb robbing as Indiana Jones stuff, stuff that happened mostly in movies, and certainly not in real life anymore. This book definitely proved me wrong. In fact, despite the arrests of many of the players in the worldwide conspiracy to smuggle antiquities out of Italy, restore them, launder them and sell them to high-profile museums and collectors, it's probably happening right now, as I'm typing this.

Furthermore, the looted objects discussed in this book are not small-time. Frescoes from villas, vases by the best potters and painters of ancient times, even a solid-gold funeral wreath: all of these things and more were unearthed by the tombarolos (grave robbers) Giacomo Medici employed. Medici was the kingpin in this conspiracy: his vast network of tombarolos in Italy collected his objects for him (in return for which many were paid an actual salary) and he held them in a warehouse in an unregulated area of Switzerland known as the Freeport. He worked with a network of restorers and antiquities dealers, who helped him sell these antiquities to well-known private collectors and museums. That way, these collectors could maintain their veneer of respectability and still get first-rate objects.

The Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were the two institutions that figured most prominently in the book, but the book will make you suspicious of any antiquity you see anywhere. Furthermore, the book's authors make you care. The last chapter is devoted to the damage done to the archaeological record by this scam. Often, the conspirators would lie about the origin of an object if their illegal dig had been exposed or if an object could fetch more money if it was from a different region. Since we're talking about nearly one million objects, there's no way the conspirators might even agree to tell the truth as part of a plea bargain -- they probably wouldn't be able to. Divorced from their context, the objects have less to say. In a sense, we are all the victims of this scam.

I was reading this book at work yesterday when the president of the board asked me about it. I tried to boil down the conspiracy for him, and he asked the obvious question: why wasn't Marion True more suspicious? Why did everyone settle for the pat explanation that these high-quality objects just magically materialized on the market? There are two simple answers to that question. A sympathetic one would say that Marion True, and her counterparts, were just trusting. Marion True had excellent personal relationships with many of the collectors and dealers in this story, although the New Yorker profile had quotes from her friends showing that she always maintained a certain distance for ethical reasons. A cynical explanation would say that avarice and ambition overtook her and her counterparts: everyone knew exactly what they were doing and didn't care as long as they didn't get caught.

To me, neither one is enough of an explanation. I still don't really understand it. Marion True spent years getting her PhD with the goal of devoting her life to the study of antiquities. Why would she turn around and harm her own discipline? No amount of money or acclaim could ever convince me to do that, and I'm not nearly as influential as she was. Furthermore, it sounds like she had it all. At points, I was quite jealous of her success. Well-regarded in her field, in command of a large budget and a group of underlings, with the opportunity to publish, to curate high-end exhibits, to direct an entire gallery renovation, to travel abroad several times a year -- it's a dream come true to those like me, at the bottom of the profession, whose curatorial duties include answering the phone and spreading salt in the parking lot. Yet, she fucked it all up. Why, I wonder? Was it worth it?

Or did she honestly believe that she was doing nothing wrong? Even the decidedly unsympathetic authors of The Medici Conspiracy note that she was hardly the only curator following these buying practices, just the only one to get in trouble for it. The New Yorker article notes that one problematic practice, buying fragments of vases in an attempt to reconsitute them over time, dates back to the nineteenth century (Medici would exploit this by breaking a vase found whole and releasing the fragments over time, or by using them to sweeten other deals.) Over the years, she advocated for ethics reform, instituted new acquisition policies at the Getty, and generally showed her awareness of the problem. Could she have really been that blind to her involvement in it? Or did she just have a real set of brass balls?

I still don't know. Because of the way their system is set up, her trial in Italy is proceeding slowly, and even at the conclusion of it, it still may be difficult to form a definitive opinion. But in an odd sense, Marion True inspired me. Like I said above, she had it all and she fucked it up. Maybe I, too, could have it all and NOT fuck it up? While I doubt I'll get the Greek villa on my current salary, I am going to shoot for being more than a glorified tour guide and events planner, and shoot for it as hard as I can.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Why I love her: E. Annie Proulx

Since my New Year's Resolution is to blog more often, since the book I'm reading now will take some time to get through, and since I feel like blogging RIGHT NOW, I'm doing another one of these. The second installment in my series (as you may have guessed) is about E. Annie Proulx.

Most people know her from one of two of her works: the short story "Brokeback Mountain" or the novel The Shipping News. I actually didn't like the second much: I couldn't keep track of all the characters and their backstories, although I suspect that maybe it was me, since I can see how it's a good book. The first I loved so much that I refuse to see the movie. Not because I think they wrecked the story, but because I think society wrecked the humanity of it by making jokes about Brokeback this and Brokeback that. The story made me cry, and still does when I think about it. I mean, read it and imagine yourself as one of the main characters and see how much you feel like laughing then.

"Brokeback Mountain" was the story that got me interested in her. Since then, I've read both of her short story collections (I believe there's only two) and her newest novel, That Old Ace in the Hole, as well as The Shipping News. Ace in the Hole was pretty good, but I prefer her short story collections in general. She's a writer of the West the way someone like Willie Morris or Harper Lee was a writer of the South. When you read her short stories, you feel like you're there. You understand the place, and the people, and their relationship. But like them, she doesn't glamorize. A short story like "What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?", about a beleaguered rancher, will have you suffering sympathetic symptoms of stress. You just want to reach into the story and hand that guy some money to help him fix the impossible situation that he's in: he can't sell his ranch, but he can't keep it running either, he's too old and broken-down to start over and none of his family understands any of this. Even stories that are less about the land still have a lot of the West in them.

Annie Proulx's fiction offers to me exactly what many readers seek: a chance to step outside myself and my own environment in a way that even taking a vacation wouldn't allow me. Reading these stories shows me a different way of life through the eyes of one who's living it and that's "why I love her".

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Extremely Great and Incredibly Worth the Wait

During my summer of good books two and a half years ago, one of my friend Sophie's favorite authors was Jonathan Safran Foer, although at the time he'd only written one book, Everything is Illuminated. But she loved him, and used to occasionally refer to him as "her boyfriend". She encouraged me to read Everything is Illuminated, and I got it once, but didn't read it. I even got the movie once and didn't watch it. After reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, though, I'll make a point of getting back to it.

This is one of the best books I've read in a while. A lot of the stuff, and certainly most of the fiction, I've been blogging about lately is more fun than anything else. This book has a great sense of fun, but is also fairly ambitious. To peg it as a September 11th novel or as a World War II novel is unfair, although both events play significant roles in the book. So I'll say it's the story of Oskar Schell.

Oskar is a really, really terrific kid. He's nine years old, smart and funny and very passionate about the world. He can be summed up pretty well by the business card he gives out, which reads:

"Oskar Schell: Inventor, Jewelry Designer, Jewelry Fabricator, Amateur Entomologist, Francophile, Vegan, Origamist, Pacifist, Percussionist, Amateur Astronomer, COmputer Consultant, Amateur Archaeologist, Collector of: rare coins, butterflies that died natural deaths, miniature cacti, Beatles memorabilia, semiprecious stones and other things E-mail:, Home phone: private / Cell phone: private, Fax Machine: I don't have a fax yet."

I bet you wish you could spent 300-odd pages with someone like that, too. In this book, Oskar is on a quest, a difficult and important one. His father, with whom he was very close, died on September 11th. He was in the World Trade Center for a meeting and didn't make it out. Oskar's dad was the best dad Oskar could ever have, and Foer is a clever enough writer to show us this rather than tell us, through Oskar's remembrances of the complicated games the two of them shared and the imaginative stories his dad would tell him. Oskar is hanging out in his dad's closet one day, and finds a blue vase containing an envelope, marked "Black", with a key inside. He sets out to discover what this key opens, what he didn't know about his dad. On the advice of a woman at the art store (who notes both the capitalization of the word and the fact that it was written in red ink), he sets out to meet everyone in New York with the surname of Black and to figure out which one his father knew, and what the key opens.

This is one of the most delectable parts of the book. He meets a lot of fascinating people. Elderly Georgia Black has a museum of her husband in her living room, and is delighted to have Oskar visit it. She tells him no one has been to see her in more than a year, and spends a lot of time showing him her husband's baby shoes, his golf clubs, their wedding album, etc. Her husband surprises us (and Oskar) by emerging from the next room and inviting them in to see his museum of her. He meets the recently divorced, shut-ins and widows. He meets a man with a newborn baby and asks if he could pet it. He writes to a convicted murderer. He makes close friends with a former war correspondant. Everyone has a story to tell. Some of them even come to his school play, Hamlet (he plays Yorick).

The other half of the story is told by Oskar's grandparents, who survived World War II and the Dresden bombing and have their own story of loss and redemption to tell. I found myself more captivated by Oskar, although their story was very moving and interesting. Safran Foer plays some games with the text too: sometimes it's strung out, a whole portion of it is covered in red editorial marks, there are photos and drawings to the extent where I imagine his conversations with the editors: "On pages 50-75, I want all those marks to be printed, I didn't send you an early draft by mistake."

It's a beautiful book. It's ambitious, but doesn't try too hard. Nor do you get the sense that Safran Foer is exploiting September 11 in any way. By taking it back down to an individual level, he actually manages to get a fresh approach on a subject that has been dissected relentlessly since it happened. You'll enjoy Oskar, and all of the people that he meets, you'll come to miss his dad too. Ultimately, it's a hopeful and optimistic book, not so much about death as about life. You'll probably cry (and you should be smarter than me, and not bring it to a mechanic's waiting room, especially when you're almost done with it), but you'll come away from it feeling better about the world and all the interesting people it contains.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Another clever book from George Saunders

I've been a fan of George Saunders for about seven years now, ever since I purchased the Best American Short Stories of 1999 and read "Winky", shortly after "The Barber's Unhappiness" appeared in The New Yorker. I bought both of his story collections, was pleased when he began to get tapped regularly for The New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" section, and FINALLY got to read his In Persuasion Nation last week.

I don't know what to think of it. I was a little disappointed to see that I'd read most of those stories before, in different forms. I was further disappointed to dislike many of the new ones. The title story, especially, was too long, and too precious. It's about characters in commercials who have a lot of harm inflicted upon them in selling the product and rise up against their oppressors within the ads (think of the Mucinex guys, repeatedly chased out of their comfy homes). It was intentionally choppily written, but at some points that just becomes annoying to me and kind of detracts from the message.

I think that's the overall problem with many of the stories in the book. In his earlier books, he made excellent points, but the stories had a lot of heart and humanity. I was really moved by the dilemma of Neil in "Winky." I felt sad that the barber was never going to find his way out of his own unhappiness because of his inability to love any woman the way she was and his own overinflated sense of self-worth. A few of these stories did that: "Jon", "CommComm" and "My Flamboyant Grandson" in particular captured the humanity of people living in an inhumane and absurd society, sometimes exaggerated from our own, sometimes not. But a lot of them were just trying to make various points about materialism/consumerism, entertainment and corporate control. Don't get me wrong, they did, and I'm sure a lot of people loved this book, but I miss the heart. I understand he has a book either out now or imminent, and I'll look forward to that one too.